Kevin Williamson is having fun. "You want to do this? Okay, let's f—ing do this," you can almost hear him muttering. In the resultant extended, hilarious, quixotic rant, he takes the gloves off in the fight to get everyone to put their gloves back on and think, damnit! He's going to war in defense of David Frenchism.
The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics reads like an angry letter you write but don't send, and I mean that in the best way. He writes it like he's corresponding with a witty friend who gets it and doesn't need any coddling to keep up.
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He hates coddling. It's not a book for the 90 percent of people who disapprove of "ad hominem" argumentation without understanding what the ad hominem fallacy really means. It's swear-y and full of raucous insults. If he'll forgive some rank punnery, he hangs it all out, and it's not an abortive effort. Like the bad boy in a reality show, Williamson is not here to make friends. He's here to win.
Win what? Well, to help us win back our sanity. And how does he define sanity? The opposite of "ochlocracy." There is, he says, "a great deal of social space to explore between ‘legally permitted' and ‘legally prohibited.'" And that's where he and this book live. Ochlocracy is the rule of the mob. The votaries of Socrates' execution as well as the tweeters about the online world's various momentary monsters are ochlocrats. Maybe censorship is a word too often thrown around, and "chilling" is a bit of a cliché. But if we could get our minds to work on their own and not glance at what the rest of the herd is doing, we'd be a lot better off. This is a simple thesis, and a vital one. Williamson, who seems reluctant to discuss the episode of his own firing from the Atlantic, knows firsthand what's so frustrating about mobthink. It isn't really that the mob thinks dumb things, though it does. It's that it thinks unanswerable things. The mob knows it's right, especially when it's wrong.
It'd be worth buying this book just for the footnotes. It's full of jokes and jabs. Williamson is mostly concerned with the subject of anomie, that sociological loneliness that midcentury thinkers supposed cities and global politics and mass culture would infect the modern person with. But, more, he meditates on a new kind of ur-anomie that people feel when formed into ideological groups bearing keyboard pitchforks. "I feel safe in a cage in New York City," AC/DC sang. Readers (and, worse, writers) these days feel safe in a like-minded tribe and in, well, a very different New York City from the one Brian Johnson meant to evoke—Girls, not Death Wish. That safety, Williamson believes, is for cowards and children.
A note on the prose: Usually in writing a book review, one has to select between a few usable quotations to show what kind of thing the author is doing. Here, I could honestly flip to any page. Because it's ranty, it is a bit disjointed. It's one man thinking aloud (or apen). But it's stylish, unrestrained, and straight from the mind of a pissed-off genius. That stylistic choice, on top of all the actual FUs, is part of his overall "screw off" being delivered to the gatekeeping that he's come up against. And, gates unkept, the result is remarkable and madly readable.
So, I'm literally going to do it. I'm flipping through. Here goes one, on the editor in chief of the Atlantic, who promised to stand behind him and who nominally hates identity politics except when he's constantly caving to it:
"We need free minds now more than ever. It's like Jeffrey Goldberg and his balls: You'll miss them when they're gone."
"Properly understood and at their best, both American conservatives and American liberals are—or were until five minutes ago—heirs and advocates of… classical liberalism, however much they disagree about particulars of its application or interpretation. Inherent in the classical liberal model is what [Michael] Oakeshott called ‘the politics of skepticism.' The easiest way to understand what is meant by ‘the politics of skepticism' is to consider its alternative, ‘the politics of faith,' in which governing is like a ‘godlike adventure' the goal of which is the perfection of man."
So has Williamson written a manifesto? A tell-all? A work of philosophy? No, it's a dare. I dare you to handle it, Williamson is saying. I dare you to ignore the language and style and personality and engage the ideas. I dare you to get over yourself and over all the pointless social rules that constrict discourse today. I dare you to think.
When you read a writer who isn't even trying to play the Have Virtuous Opinions and Show Status game, it's a stark reminder of just how much everyone else is playing that particular game. This is the tradeoff for sometimes saying unfortunate stuff about hangings, the tradeoff the Atlantic decided wasn't worth it. Reading this book shows just how worth it it is, though. And the people who naturally, by individual thought and conscience, would have more traditionally acceptable opinions should take it as a model. Hewing to the mob makes you boring and unintellectual, which are bad things right or left.
If you mainly want to hear about the Atlantic firing episode, you'll get some of that, but the juicy bits are mainly at the end. But as much media navel-gazing as the whole thing is, it does make for good reading:
"[David Bradley] called me into his office on my first day at the magazine to give me a little speech about the Atlantic‘s core values—namely its commitment to the collegial exploration of meaningful ideas—which began with an indecipherable and possibly senescent reverie on his childhood experiences at Sidwell Friends and ended with his putting his hand on my shoulder and speaking directly and confidently to the controversy surrounding me: ‘We are not wavering,' he said. ‘I am not wavering.'
I should have just packed up my personal belongings in a shoebox right then and made for the elevators—when an old WASP banker with no ass feels compelled to put on a serious face and promise that he's not about to [f—k] you, you're already [f—ed]."
People who regard Kevin Williamson as an enemy do so because he's possessed of "dangerous" (read: shitty) ideas. But Williamson is, this book makes very clear, more precisely just full of ideas, period. And anyone that full of ideas is going to have some shitty ones—he knows it as well as his critics. There's plenty of stuff Williamson thinks for anyone of any stripe to disagree with. But the broad thesis of the book is that it's better to be full of ideas one arrives at oneself than to choose your ideas as a part of a never-ending, no-win status game. That's a way to wind up not full of ideas, but simply full of it. That way, this book ably argues, stupidity lurks.